An American’s Passion for British Art : Paul Mellon’s Legacy

London, Royal Academy of Arts, from 20 October 2007 to 27 January 2008

1. Georges Stubbs (1724-1806)
Zebra, 1762-1763
Oil on canvas - 102,8 x 126,6 cm
New Haven, Yale Center for British Art
Photo : Picselect

On the occasion of the centenary of the birth of Paul Mellon (1907-1999), the Royal Academy presents more than 150 works from the vast collections built up by this wealthy member of the celebrated American banking family. In fact, one of the major sponsors of the exhibition is the Bank of New York Mellon, as the family establishment is now known. Paul Mellon’s mother was an Englishwoman – which may explain his Anglophilia. Another possible source of his later passion for British culture is the fact that after graduating from Yale he went to England to study at the University of Cambridge. He received his BA there in 1931, and his father, Andrew W. Mellon, served as the United States Ambassador to the Court of St. James in 1932-1933, after being Secretary of the Treasury from 1921 to 1932. His father himself was a great patron of the arts, richly endowing the National Gallery of Art in Washington in two ways – by a major bequest of Great Masters and by providing the funds for a new wing to house them in the 1930s. This pattern was repeated in 1976, when Paul Mellon founded the Yale Center for British Art [1], commissioning a new building from the architect Louis I. Kahn to accommodate the collections which he was donating. The exhibition at the Royal Academy makes it possible to see a number of works in Britain again for the first time since they left the country (much smaller selections from his collection were exhibited there in 1964–1965 and 1978).

The first room is devoted to “Sporting Art” – Paul Mellon shared with the British royal family and aristocracy a passion for “field sports” and horses (he had a first-class stable which won many famous American races). He was therefore “naturally” attracted to the painting of George Stubbs, and the first British picture which he bought, in 1936, was Stubbs’ Pumpkin with a Stable-Lad (1774). Also by Stubbs, one can see Turf, with Jockey Up, at Newmarket (c. 1765) and above all the magnificent Zebra (1762-1763) which provides the background image for the posters and leaflets advertising the Exhibition (ill. 1). The room also has great pictures of horses by later, more “Romantic” authors, notably Muly Moloch, A Chestnut Colt being rubbed down on Newmarket Heath, with Portraits of Trotter, Hardy, and Thompson to the Left (1803) by Ben Marshall and Eagle, A Celebrated Stallion (1809) by James Ward. There are also great drawings (notably anatomical) by Stubbs – it is of course impossible to describe all the items in the exhibition. But Paul Mellon was not content with possessing pictures of field sports : he was also interested in the documentation which went with it. A showcase is devoted to some of his rare books on the subject, notably two volumes of Le Livre du Roy Modus et de la Royne Racio by Henri de Ferrières (France, 15th c.).

2. John Mallord William Turner (1775-1851)
Dort or Dordrecht : The Dort Packet-Boat from Rotterdam Becalmed, 1817-18
Oil on canvas - 157,5 x 233 cm
New Haven, Yale Center for British Art
Photo : Picselect

Turner’s Dort, or Dordrecht, the Dort Packet-boat from Rotterdam Becalmed (1817-1818), which provides the cover image for the catalogue, and on show in Britain for the first time since Paul Mellon bought it in 1966, immediately catches the eye when one enters the next room, which contains the collector’s great “Landscapes” (ill. 2). The impression of tranquillity is also present in Landscape with Cattle (1772-1774) by Thomas Gainsborough, in total contrast with the agitated skies and threatening waves in John Constable’s Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames – Morning After a Stormy Night (1829). Naturally, Turner was equally at ease with scenes of extreme agitation of the elements, as witnessed by his superbly frightening Staffa, Fingal’s Cave (1832). Among the watercolours particularly worthy of note in Room 2, one could cite Vesuvius in Eruption (c.1817-1820) and a very interesting Leeds (1816), unfortunately without any explanatory caption. Surely the tall red-brick chimneys in the background belong with Blake’s “dark satanic mills” ?

3. Canaletto (1697-1768)
Warwick Castle
Oil on canvas - 72,4 x 119,9 cm
New Haven, Yale Center for British Art
Photo : Yale Center for British Art

4. Jacques Le Moyne
de Morgues (c. 1533 – 1588)
Young Daughter
of the Picts
, c. 1585
Watercolour and gouache, touched
with gold, on parchment - 26 x 18,6 cm
New Haven, Yale Center for British Art
Photo : Yale Center for British Art
New Haven, Yale Center for British Art
Photo : Yale Center for British Art

There is naturally always some dimension of arbitrariness in classifying works of art, and Turner’s Mer de Glace, in the Valley of Chamouni, Switzerland(Watercolour, 1803 ?), could have been hung in Room 3, on “Topography and the Picturesque”, which has a magnificent Canaletto of Warwick Castle (1748-1749, ill. 3), painted shortly after a fine drawing showing Westminster Bridge under construction, The City of Westminster from near the York Water Gate (c.1746-1747). One curiosity – a “Picturesque” piece of work indeed – is A Young Daughter of the Picts (Watercolour and gouache, touched with gold, on parchment, c. 1585) by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, which supposedly represents a female archetype of that ancient people of invaders (ill. 4).
Visitors interested in architecture and its representations will be particularly taken by Interior of St. Paul’s Cathedral (Watercolour, c. 1792) by Thomas Malton The Younger and Tintern Abbey by Richard Colt Hoare (Watercolour, in Historical Tour Through Monmouthshire, by William Coxe, 1801). In fact this room and the following ones also house a marvellous selection of maps and atlases centring on Great Britain, like the extraordinary A Compleat Sett of Mapps of England and Wales in General, and of Each Country in Particular,… (Manuscript, in pen and ink and watercolour, on parchment, 1724) by Thomas Badeslade, or on the early phases in the building of the Empire (Baptista Boazio’s The Famouse West Indian voyadge made by the Englishe Fleete of 23 shippes and Barkes wherin weare gotten the Townes of St. Iago, Sto. Domingo, Cartagena, and St Avgvstines, the same beinge begon from Plimmouth in the Moneth of September 1585 and ended at Portesmouth in Iulit 1586. Hand-coloured engraving, 1589), as well as books on natural history (Helmingham Herbal and Bestiary, gouache and watercolour, with pen and ink, on parchment, c. 1500 – open to show “Camomyl”) and illustrated handbooks of advice to artists, both technical (Edward Luttrell’s An Epitome of Painting Containing Briefe Directions for Drawing Painting Limning and Cryiibs wth the choicest Receipts for preparing the Colours for Lamning and Cryoons, Likewise Directions for Painting on Glass as tis now in use amongst all persons of Quality. And Lastly How to lay the Ground, and work in Mezzo Tinto. Manuscript, in pen and ink, 1683) and aesthetic (William Gilpin’s Hints to form the taste & regulate ye judgment in sketching Landscape. Manuscript, in pen and ink, with watercolour, c. 1790 – open to show a colour chart of greens and greys used in landscape painting).

Paul Mellon always had to have the best, but his edition of the Kelmscott Chaucer by William Morris (Kelmscott Press, 1896) is not the luxury one bound in tawed sow hide by Sanderson – yet it has an autograph letter by Swinburne thanking William Morris for sending it (28 June 1896), suggesting that it was the poet’s own copy. There is also Turner’s Channel Sketchbook (c. 1845) and a Blake showcase, with a remarkable miniature, The Horse (c. 1805).
The theme of Room 4 is “Travel Abroad” and again, without the necessity for finding a balance between the various rooms, Turner’s Dort or Mer de Glace could as well have been hung in Room 4. To the traditional pictures reflecting the de rigueur Grand Tour, like Richard Parkes Bonington’s Grand Canal, Venice (1826) one might prefer the reportage from far-away lands, like Thomas Hearne’s A View on the Island of Antigua : The English Barracks and St. John’s Church Seen from the Hospital (Watercolour, c. 1775-6 – which benefits from a very useful explanatory caption on European fears of natives’ revolts) or William Alexander’s City of Lin Tsin, Shantung, with a View of the Grand Canal (Watercolour, 1795), which shows that Western fascination with China is no new thing. The curiosity of the room is no doubt A Frank Encampment in the Desert of Mount Sinai, 1842 – The Convent of St. Catherine in the Distance by John Frederick Lewis (Watercolour, 1856), which would be totally incomprehensible without the excellently informative caption.

5. Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827)
The Exhibition Stare-case,
Somerset House
, c. 1800.
Watercolour with pen and ink over graphite
on wove paper - 44.5 x 29.7 cm
New Haven, Yale Center for British Art
Photo : Yale Center
for British Art

6. Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792)
Mrs. Abington as Miss Prue in
Love for Love by William Congreve
, 1771
Oil on canvas - 76.8 x 63.7 cm
New Haven, Yale Center for British Art
Photo : Yale Center
for British Art

“Genre Scenes and Portraits” form the final section. Outside the ranks of specialists of the period, few people must be familiar with Robert Burnard’s John Gubbins Newton and his Sister, Mary Newton (Oil on canvas, c. 1833), the picture which immediately greets the visitor at the far end of the room. The reason for this emphasis is only made clear in the caption : it was one of Paul Mellon’s favourites, and it hung in the hallway of his Virginia residence until his death. One can only suppose that all the elements were there to please him : the family dog, the docile horse, the boy in bright red riding coat, the girl in pretty dress – in an atmosphere of aristocratic or at least upper middle class affluence and perfect order, hardly disturbed by the mild agitation of the clouds. No doubt he identified with the boy. The poor and the labouring population were not of course his preferred themes – and this is largely reflected once more in the final room. One will not be surprised for instance to see a group portrait of The Drummond Family by Johann Zoffany (Oil on canvas : c. 1769) : like the Mellons, the Drummonds were into banking, and the father served his country as Member of Parliament. From the same date, there is a remarkable chiaroscuro by Joseph Wright of Derby, An Academy by Lamplight (Oil on canvas, c. 1768-1769), unfortunately without explanatory notes in the caption. There are also a number of satirical works : The Beggar’s Opera, by Hogarth (Oil on canvas, 1729) recently seen at the Tate [2] – but of course one never tires of looking at the details, which the excellent captioning most helpfully decrypts for the modern viewer – and a “naughty” watercolour by Thomas Rowlandson gently mocking the Royal Academy, The Exhibition Stare-case, Somerset House (c. 1800 – spelling of “stare” deliberate, ill. 5). Another unusually humourous picture is Francis Wheatley’s The Browne Family (c. 1778), where the effect comes from the reversal of what we now call “gender roles” : the mother is angling while the father is sketching. There can be no doubt that the greatest “Portrait” in the room is Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Mrs. Abington as Miss Prue in William Congreve’s "Love for Love" (1771, ill. 6), while the archetypal British “Genre Scene” is probably the afternoon tea ceremony in an exquisitely decorated room by Arthur Devis, Mr. and Mrs. Hill, (c.1750-1751).

7. Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788)
The Gravenor Family, c. 1754
Oil on canvas - 90.2 x 90.2 cm
New Haven, Yale Center for British Art
Photo : Yale Center
for British Art

Yet my favourite British “Genre Scene” remains Gainsborough’s The Gravenor Family (c. 1754, ill.8) : it is or used to be reproduced in all books on British 18th century History as the perfect image of genteel family life – and seeing the stupendously beautiful original justifies a visit to the exhibition in itself.

Antoine Capet, dimanche 16 décembre 2007


[1] Where the exhibition was first shown, from 19 April to 29 July 2007.

[2] See H-Museum review

imprimer Print this article

Previous article in Exhibitions : The myth of the Far West in American art 1830-1940

Next article in Exhibitions : Pittura napoletana del Seicento dalle collezioni medicee